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Building a Better NASA Workforce: Meeting the Workforce Needs for the National Vision for Space Exploration
and potential employees—to gain hands-on experience that would satisfy one of the perennial issues facing the agency: the need for highly skilled program/project managers and systems engineers.
In addition, the committee noted that over approximately the past decade and a half, the average age of NASA’s workers has marched steadily upward, and the agency now has a relatively low number of younger workers to assume future leadership roles in NASA as older workers retire. If it does nothing to achieve a better age distribution across its overall internal workforce, NASA will suffer a gap not only in technical leadership, but also in overall technical experience, especially if the development dates for key VSE components slip and highly skilled workers with experience in the Space Shuttle program retire. The committee concluded that if NASA is to avoid a long-term shortage of the required in-house technical expertise in human spaceflight systems and other areas, it will have to adopt a strategy to address potential long-term shortfalls.
Fortunately, NASA does have programs and methods currently available for meeting its workforce needs. These include, but are not limited to, legislative authority to enhance recruitment of workers with the required skills, internal training programs such as the intramural Academy of Program/Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL; focused primarily on engineers), and extramural programs such as the Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP; focused currently on scientists). Although the committee highlights these specific programs, there are also others by which the agency trains current and potential members of its workforce. However, the committee found that many of these programs have atrophied over time and require revitalization and restructuring. In the case of GSRP, for example, NASA sponsors fellowships with award amounts that are significantly smaller than those provided by other government agencies, placing NASA at a competitive disadvantage.5 The committee also noted with alarm that shortly before it completed its work, NASA headquarters restricted its GSRP for budgetary reasons to accept only returning applicants, not new applicants. The amount of money required to fixthese problems is not large. The committee believes that, in some cases, adding to the selection criteria for smallscience projects a consideration of their contributions to the training of students and junior-level professionalswould improve NASA’s ability to recruit, train, and retain a skilled workforce.
The GSRP has allowed NASA to develop close ties with universities in the sciences. However, similar opportunities in engineering are far more limited. In addition, NASA has had a strong relationship with university faculty and their students as members of space science teams in technology development, mission planning, small-mission development, and mission operations. But there have been fewer close interactions in engineering and human spaceflight. In the committee’s view, NASA could benefit significantly by expanding to the engineering disciplines its approaches to establishing relationships in the sciences at the university level.
NASA already spends a significant amount of money—over $162 million in fiscal year 2006—on education. But much of this funding is congressionally earmarked for kindergarten through grade 12 and public education programs (such as science centers and museums) that do not directly assist the agency in developing the specific workforce that NASA requires.
The committee believes that training students to design and build satellites and satellite instruments, gain hands-on experience with the unique demands of satellite and spacecraft systems environments and operations, and acquire early knowledge of systems engineering techniques is an extremely important investment for NASA to make. NASA needs to play a role in training the potential workforce in the skills that are unique to the work the agency conducts (see Figures ES.1 and ES.2). If NASA does not nurture and train its own potential workforce, there is no guarantee that any other government agency or private entity will do so, nor that the agency will receive the high-quality personnel that it requires to achieve the ambitious goals of returning humans to the Moon and eventually sending them to Mars.
The committee emphasizes further that when evaluating its future workforce requirements, NASA has to consider not only programs for students, but also training opportunities for its current employees. NASA’s training programs at the agency’s various field centers, which are focused on NASA’s civil service talent, require support to
For example, a NASA GSRP slot is valued at $30,000 and awarded for 1 year; the reward is renewable for up to 3 years. For comparison, graduate fellowship funding can reach $35,000 at NIH, $37,000 at EPA, $40,500 at NSF, $42,200 to $52,200 at DOE, and $55,000 at DOD. (Figures are from 2005. More recent data were not available as of this writing.)